Barbara Castle, whose Cabinet Diaries are in Special Collections, is back in the news thanks to a new film, Made in Dagenham, in which she is played by Miranda Richardson. The film tells a version of the story of the female machinists from Ford’s Dagenham works, who went on strike in June 1968 after a job evaluation undervalued their skills compared to those of men working in the plant. Barbara Castle, recently appointed Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, championed the women’s cause. As she said in her autobiography Fighting all the Way, “It fired my determination to force the macho male chauvinists in the Treasury to accept the principle of equal pay”. The company had appealed to the Treasury to help settle the matter, which was threatening production, but which was incredibly complicated – five unions at the plant were involved, with very different views.
Typically, Castle cut through the complexity by speaking directly to the women, having tea with them on 28 June, as a photo opportunity and to put them at their ease. “In they trooped, looking rather suspicious. So I turned on every ounce of relaxing charm. I firmly enconsced myself on the sofa right in the middle of them and got them talking and laughing as the photographers trooped in. They were a nice set of women, obviously with a burning and genuine sense of outrage … the press out of the way, we drew our chairs close together in a circle and got down to business”. A settlement was reached as a result of the meeting; other women began to campaign and strike for equal pay. The Equal Pay Act was passed in May 1970 thanks to Barbara’s efforts and despite considerable opposition from the male-dominated unions, employers and others in the Cabinet.
Despite Castle’s achievement in pushing the Act through (her biographer Anne Perkins called her “The godmother of equal pay”), Barbara Castle did not identify herself as a feminist, considering that socialism was a higher priority as it would mean fairness for all including women. The Act has a complex legacy and the debate continues …
(I have been unable to find a copyright cleared image relating to the strike to illustrate this post, but Getty Images has some great ones of the tea party online to view, search editorial photos “barbara castle machinists”.)